Bob Marley was more than just a reggae singer. A certified cultural icon, there are two sides to Marley’s reputation these days: the not-to-be-diminished groundbreaking status as a genre innovator and ambassador for Jamaica, and the watered-down stoner emblem of popular music.
Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, but there are entire generations of kids who first heard reggae while wandering into the room of a cool older cousin or a hippy-dippy college dormmate who had a flag with a pot leaf on it. This wasn’t just curiosity: it was palpable rebellion, even if there wasn’t really anything revolutionary about smoking a joint and getting lost in the groove.
Marley always came across as a countercultural figure, but his image was made far more gentle after his untimely death in 1981. The truth was that he was capable of righteous fury, both inside and outside of music. He could be warm and welcoming, but also feverishly devoted to divisive political causes and movements that made him a target of condemnation, retaliation and attempted assassination. There were even rumours that the CIA was behind the shooting that could have taken Marley’s life in 1976.
Largely a proponent of non-violence, Marley was never shy about writing songs that covered brutal realities. These songs, which confronted the unforgivable damage of the slave trade, the inherent racism of Jamaican society, the economic disparities between affluent whites and poor Afro-Jamaicans, were rarely featured on compilations like Legend. The millions upon millions of albums sold largely only told one side of Marley’s story.
These are the songs that were capable of galvanising the people and spreading real change. Marley’s reputation as an iconic trailblazer artist can’t be told without highlighting some of his most revolutionary work. But the great thing about Marley was that even his most potent pop songs could still contain powerful messages. He was a man with a gift, not just for impactful messages but also everlasting hooks and melodies.
So today, we’re assembling some of Marley’s best political anthems that haven’t quite translated into mainstream culture like ‘Buffalo Soldier’ or ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ have. While tracks like ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, ‘No Woman, No Cry’, ‘Redemption Song’, and ‘War’ are essential to Marley’s legacy and highly charged in their own right, there are plenty of other songs that give a broader insight into Bob Marley as an activist, a progressive, and a world changer. These are Marley’s best political anthems that are hiding just below the surface.
Bob Marley’s 10 best lesser-known political anthems:
From the very start, Marley had activism ingrained in his writing. Recorded in 1963 when Marley was just 18, ‘Simmer Down’ was a response to the “rude boy” youth subculture that occasionally lapsed into violent crime in Jamaica.
Recorded with the first incarnation of The Wailers, ‘Simmer Down’ wasn’t just a call out of the abyss: it was a number one hit in Marley’s home country, setting the stage for his ascension to cultural dominance.
The track that gave 1973’s Catch a Fire its title, ‘Slave Driver’ is about far more than lighting a spliff. The phrase “catch a fire” here is more reminiscent of “burn in Hell”, and the rest of the track is an uncompromisingly dark look into the horrors of the slave trade and how it connects to poverty, illiteracy, and economic disparity in the modern day.
‘Burnin and Lootin’
In the space of only about four minutes, Marley is able to make references to repression, police brutality, and the only freedom that many disaffected individuals feel by expressing their anger through violence and destruction.
More than any other song, ‘Burnin and Lootin’ plants its flag against the powerful elites, justifying the arson and thievery as the logical results of greed.
Taking influence from American blues, Marley channels his own visits to the United States into the grime-heavy rebuke of the urban hellscape that takes so much and pays so little.
Able to conjure up the most affecting images of his career, Marley really hits home with one line in particular: “No chains around me feet but I’m not free / I know I am bound here in captivity”.
‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’
Perhaps the most stirring way Marley ever mixed his radical politics with his more optimistic worldview, ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ never shies away from its central message of discontent.
However, it also encourages the listener to let go of their troubles, something that Marley’s music with The Wailers was specially designed to do.
Curfews and roadblocks were nothing new in Jamaica, but they disproportionally targeted the Afro-Jamaican population over the elite white Jamaican demographic.
At first, Marley simply has to throw his herb away, but when the shakedown gets more thorough, the true rebellion moves beyond weed and into the mistreatment of the majority of Jamaica’s citizens.
Just in case you didn’t get the point, Marley drummer Carlton Bennett brings back the same identical drum intro to ‘Revolution’ that had been used three times before on previous ‘Natty Dread’ songs, including the two previous songs on this list.
The message is clear: the music is a conduit for the message, which couldn’t be any more straightforward than on ‘Revolution’.
European settlement in Jamaica was devastating to both the native population and the African slave population who were brought in by whites. The native Taíno were virtually extinct by 1600 and even though Afro-Jamaicans outnumbered White Jamaicans by the thousands in the mid-1970s, whites were still wealthy and elite in the country.
‘Crazy Baldhead’ refers to both the skinheads and KKK members that Marley encountered aboard, but its message was one that had been in the making for hundreds of years at home.
Pan-Africanism was a major cause for Marley, who recognised his own roots in the continent and sought greater autonomy for its native people.
Colonisation had affected all nations, and Marley calls for the uniting of all who have been oppressed to move “right out of Babylon” and into the promised land. Marley drove the point home by including as many separate African nations’ flags on the cover of Survival as possible.
Just before his death in 1981, Marley released Uprising as a clear indication that his feverish devotion to righteous justice had not been dulled by his health or circumstances.
‘Real Situation’ is often overlooked in favour of ‘Redemption Song’, but its potent anti-war message is just as potent as any of Marley’s most famous political tracks.